From Wasteland to Promised Land

9. Claiming the Promised Land: A New Jubilee for a New World

n the book of Joshua, we find that although the Promised Land is a gift from God, it is a gift that has to be claimed. Even before the actual conquest of the Promised Land, the Mosaic Law prescribed a method whereby possession of land was to be rendered pleasing in God's sight. The Canaanites' claim was forfeited by their idolatry, with human sacrifice and temple prostitution, and by their exploitive, monopolistic social order. By contrast, Israel, to make good its claim, had to institute a social order that would guard against the desecration, pollution, and injustices of which its predecessors were guilty, and would secure to each family and to every generation within the Hebrew commonwealth the equal right to the use of the land, of which the Lord was recognized as the sole absolute owner.

They began with a census of the tribes and families before the conquest (Num. 26:1-51). Every tribe, excepting Levi, and within each tribe every family, was to receive its proportionate share, according to size (Num. 26:55-56), and ultimately, to ensure fairness, by lot (Num. 34:16-29). The actual distribution, according to these provisions, was concluded at Shiloh (Josh. 19:51). According to ancient historian Josephus, the territory was not divided into shares of equal size but of equal agricultural value. The landmarks that protected these allotments were protected by the public and solemn denunciation of a curse against anyone who should dishonestly tamper with them (Deut. 27:11-16; 19:14).

As discovered again in our own century, it is easier to devise a one-time fair apportionment of land that it is to keep the system from falling apart. This is why the ancient law established the Jubilee year. At the end of every fifty years, any alienated lands -- given away, sold, or lost from unpaid debts -- would be restored to the original families. Temporary possessors were to be compensated for any unexhausted improvements they may have made on the land. Concentrated landownership, and the division of society into landed and landless classes, was thereby prevented from creeping into the system. The Jubilee effectively took the profit out of landholding as such, leaving no incentive for speculation. When it was observed -- and historical records indicate that it was observed for long periods -- the Jubilee system successfully removed the root cause of poverty from the Jewish society.

The influence of the Jubilee idea upon early Pennsylvania colonists is evidenced by the inscription on the Liberty Bell of the biblical words enjoining the Jubilee year: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." (Lev. 25:10) The founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, advocated that all men be "tenants to the public", and to defray public expenses instituted a tax on land.

Environmental concern also goes back to biblical land laws. To prevent the exhaustion of the soil, a periodic fallow was ordered. "During one year in every seven, the soil, left to the influences of sun and frost, wind and rain, was to be allowed to 're-create' itself after six years' cropping, exactly as the tiller of the soil renewed his strength, after six days' work, by his Sabbath day's rest."

As noted, the tribe of Levi did not share in the equal division of the land, since it was charged with carrying out religious and public duties. Its members were entitled to an indemnity from the eleven tribes who received the land that otherwise would have gone to them. This indemnity was the tithe -- one-tenth of the product from the land occupied by the eleven other tribes.

Here, in principle, is the formula for a just land system in almost any time or place. The compensation to the Levites maintained the substance of equal rights to land, alongside of and compatible with unequal physical division of the land itself. As Frederick Verinder pointed out in his book My Neighbour's Landmark, joint heirs of a house may share it equally by occupying it equally or unequally but "paying the rental into a common fund, from which each draws an equal share; or they may let the whole house to someone else and divide the rent equally." So it is with land. Sharing equally in the economic rent or value of land through the application of that value to common uses from which all benefit, renders private ownership and unequal partition of land morally and pragmatically benign.

The modern equivalent of removing one's neighbor's landmark is thus not the private ownership of land per se, but rather the private appropriation of land value. "The profit of the earth is for all" (Eccles. 5:9). The Old Testament ethic, to assure everyone the same natural opportunity, asserts that all people have an equal right to economic rent, and the Levite tithe demonstrates that the socialization of rent offsets the ethical and practical harm resulting from private land ownership. But there is another basis for its advocacy: Rent should be taken by society because it is a social product. Rent arises in large measure from two societal phenomena: the mere presence of population, and community activity in a particular area. More people means more demand for space on which to live and work. Community activities such as roads, schools, protection, parks, sewage, utilities and other public services, as well as the totality of private commercial and cultural operations, all make land more productive or desirable. It follows that a community which funds such improvements out of its rent fund will be provided with a stable and growing fund with which to maintain and improve them. And unlike conventional taxes, the collection of this fund will enhance, not penalize, the production of wealth.

Individuals, in their bare capacity as landowners, do nothing to produce land value. By withholding sites from use, whether for speculation or for other reasons, they may generate scarcity, artificially inflating rent, but this does not reflect any positive contribution to production on the part of landowners.

While land value is not the only type of unearned increment, unearned income resulting from such advantages as talent, genes or luck is not at the expense of others. Even Karl Marx admitted: "The monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital." Marx could have -- but did not -- champion the abolition of land monopoly; instead he advocated its transfer from private into state hands. It was left to Henry George to expound how the universal principles of justice found in the Mosaic model could be applied to the modern age in all its economic aspects -- rural and urban, agricultural and industrial, technologically undeveloped or advanced.

What George advocated was to leave land titles in private hands but to appropriate land rent via the existing machinery of property taxation. "I do not propose either to purchase or to confiscate private property in land. The first would be unjust; the second, needless....It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent." No owner or tenant would be expropriated or evicted. No limit would be placed on the quantity of land one could hold, as long as the annual rent were paid.

Coordinately with the capture of rent as public revenue, taxes on products of human labor -- improvements, personal property, services, commodities, wages, etc. -- would be reduced and ultimately eliminated.

George considered his remedy no mere human contrivance. He saw the growth of land value and the easy means of equitably distributing it as an expression of benevolent supernatural design: "As civilization goes on... so do the common wants increase and so does the necessity for public revenue arise. And so in that value which attaches to land, not by reason of anything the individual does, but by reason of the growth of the community, is a provision intended -- we may safely say intended -- to meet that social want."

George's remedy goes a long way to stop current inequity and prevent future inequity. While past inequity, in the form of accumulations of capital based on previous land speculation and monopoly cannot be accurately redressed, these fortunes can be impelled to serve the needs of the public via investment in production, not by further investment in land speculation and monopoly.

Dependency theory, to the degree that it hits upon one of the causes of Third World poverty in exploitation by foreign investors, can find in George's land value tax the constructive practical approach it lacks. Neither erection of trade barriers nor legal restriction of foreign ownership is called for. As one Australian writer puts it:

(W)hen investors from one country buy property in other countries they are seeking site rent, which they hope to obtain directly from tenants, or indirectly by selling land in the future when the price or capital value has increased.... The site rent that is so attractive to overseas investors can be kept in the country quite easily - - by shifting taxation from labor onto land."
Because George asserted, "We must make land common property," he is sometimes erroneously regarded as an advocate of land nationalization. But, as we have seen, he was nothing of the sort. The expropriation of land makes it practically impossible to fairly compensate people for the improvements to land, which are their legitimate property. George's system renders to the community what is due to the community, without doing any violence to the wealth that has been fairly earned by productive workers.

Common property in land is sometimes discredited by equation with what Garrett Hardin calls "The Tragedy of the Commons." Referring to the common lands that were a major English institution until the mid-nineteenth century, Hardin describes the tendency of individuals, each rationally pursuing self-interest, to overgraze, denude, and use the commons as a cesspool. That which belongs to everybody in this sense is, indeed, in danger of being valued and maintained by nobody.

The enclosure movement ultimately brought an end to this ecologically destructive process, but not without literally pushing people off the land, exacting a baneful price in human misery that might well be termed "The Tragedy of the Enclosures." George hit upon a way of securing the benefits of both commons and enclosures, while at the same time avoiding their evils. Land value taxation rectifies distribution so that all receive wealth in proportion to their contribution to its production. This liberates the economic system from exploiters who contribute little or nothing. Apportioning the wealth pie fairly increases the incentive to increase the size of the pie. The market becomes in practice what capitalist theory alleges it to be -- a profoundly cooperative process of voluntary exchange of goods and services. Paradoxical though it may seem, the only way the individual may be assured what properly belongs to him or her is for society to take what properly belongs to it: The ideal of Jeffersonian individualism requires for its actualization the socialization of rent.

Just as Marxists err in insisting that everything be socialized, extreme capitalists err in insisting that everything (even public parks and forests!) be privatized. The middle way is to recognize society's claim to what nature and society create -- the value of land and its rent -- so that working people, including entrepreneurs, may claim their full share of what they create. In this balanced approach can be found the authentic verities respectively inherent in socialism and individualism.